"I wonder if it’s harder to live with killing someone on purpose, or by accident?” Ashley Maya asks, the first time I meet her.
We are at the Las Colinas Women’s Detention Facility in Santee. A thick sheet of Plexiglas separates us, and Maya is speaking into a telephone receiver balanced between her ear and shoulder. I hear the hum of another prisoner’s conversation faintly through my handset.
An hour ago, I was sliding my driver’s license through a slot in a jail clerk’s window.
In return, the clerk pushed out a printout with Maya’s name, jail ID number, and a window assignment. Motioning toward an open door, the lady jailer said, “That’s the visiting room.”
It resembles what you see in the movies — beige walls and a tile floor. Nineteen booths feature 38 black phones. On the wall hangs a poster explaining how to deposit money into a prisoner’s account. A sign on another wall forbids the use of cameras.
I take a seat in the waiting room among a handful of people. A toddler in pink footie pajamas uses an enormous teddy bear as a pillow. She’s curled up in a plastic blue seat next to her older sister, who appears to be six or seven. At one point, their mother encourages the girls to fold their hands. In Spanish, they pray together.
On the other side of the room, a large bleached blonde in smeared black eyeliner, red lipstick, and eyebrows plucked into permanent surprise, speaks frantically into her cell phone. She wears baggy, worn-out sweatpants that reach only to mid-thigh, a ribbed tank top with oversized arm holes, and fluffy slippers. On her right bicep is an elaborate peacock tattoo.
“You did what you had to do,” she assures the person on the other end on the line. “You should see me, I’m all black and blue, and I’m starving. All I ate today was a bologna sandwich.”
A few inmates are released while we wait. Two women stand up and clap when a spiky-haired redhead is ushered through a thick sliding glass door. The redhead is given a bag; it contains the items she had on her at the time of her arrest.
“Please tell me someone has a cigarette. For the love of God, someone, anyone.” The redhead looks around the waiting room. “I can smell it! I know someone in here is holding out!”
The man next to me shifts in his seat. His face is sliced up, as if someone had taken a broken bottle to it. He turns to me and says, “I’ve been waiting here forever for my girl. She’s getting out tonight. We got arrested in the Gaslamp. I did eight hours in the drunk tank. She’s been in here for three days. Can you believe that? Just for disturbing the peace and possession of some weed.”
A group of women are gathered across the room. Most are gray-haired. One holds a white boom box in her wrinkled hand.
“How’s you night?” a clerk asks the women.
“Blessed,” someone responds.
The women, who are with the El Cajon Pregnancy Care Center, speak with urgency about an inmate they are about to visit. Eventually, a Las Colinas employee escorts them through a sliding door, into the recesses of the correction facility.
At 8:05 p.m., people begin to filter into the visiting room. I follow them. I take a seat on a metal stool in front of window number 16. Most of the visitors seem to be familiar, greeting each other with nods and handshakes. Some discuss Christmas plans. A professionally dressed man plays Angry Birds on his iPhone.
Moments later, the prisoners shuffle in.
Ashley Maya takes a seat across from me. She is five-foot-three and around 110 pounds, and, at 22, she could pass for 15. Her hazel eyes are large and saucer-like. Her dishwater hair is long and wavy. She wears beige prison clothes that wash out her already pale complexion.
Maya was a 21-year-old Marine stationed in Yuma when she was convicted and charged with two counts of gross vehicular manslaughter and a DUI resulting in bodily injury. Due to overcrowding in California’s prisons, she was given the option of doing local time.
In October 2011, AB 109 — known as “realignment reform” — was triggered by Governor Jerry Brown when the US Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its inmate population. In 2011, California’s 22 prisons stood at 185 percent capacity, but by June 2013, they must be at 137.5 percent capacity. If they remain above that percentage, convicts will be released early without supervision.
Maya’s accident occurred during the early hours of February 12, 2012. Her Chevrolet HHR flipped while transitioning to I-8 from the 163, ejecting two passengers. Vasty Castillo suffered from a broken back and other serious injuries, while Pedro Conceicao, Maya’s best friend and fellow Marine, was killed. A front-seat passenger, Bryan Salcido, escaped with minor injuries.
At the scene Maya blew a .11 blood-alcohol concentration.
She is four months into an 11-month sentence.
Fifteen miles away, Cassie Briscoe sits on a couch in her Mission Valley apartment, charging her ankle bracelet. Briscoe is on house arrest.
“I have to charge this twice a day, for an hour each time. I haven’t taken a shower since getting it put on.” She chuckles. “I have to take baths and hang this leg out the side of it, so my monitor doesn’t get wet.”
Briscoe was released from Las Colinas on September 11 after serving only 16 days of her six-month term. Her felony arrest was for the sale and transport of crystal meth. The remainder of her sentence will be spent on house arrest under the same bill, AB 109, that sent Ashley Maya to jail instead of prison.
On July 9, 2012, the county’s Parole and Alternative Custody (CPAC) unit began selecting inmates for electronic monitoring. Briscoe qualified. She may leave her home only to go to work and a rehab program.
“I was arrested downtown after selling less than $10 worth of crystal meth,” Briscoe says. The cops found a marked $20 in my purse. It went down on 10th Avenue, near the Starbucks.”
Briscoe is allowed only to go to and from her a part-time job at a nearby mall, and to a five-days-a-week rehab program. If she goes anywhere else, local police will be notified, at which point she will be sent back to Las Colinas.
“The other day, I had a bunch of missed phone calls from the San Diego Sheriff’s Department. If you continuously charge [the ankle monitor] like they tell you to, you won’t get calls. Once the battery gets down to 35 percent, they’ll call you and say, ‘You are in direct violation.’ At the time of their phone calls, I was at work. I didn’t know what to do. I can’t charge my leg at work, because my coworkers would find out I’m on house arrest. I had to go down to the ice rink in the mall. I unplugged a Coke machine to charge up my leg. There I was, amongst families going ice-skating, charging my house-arrest ankle bracelet. Turns out, it was charged just fine. They just messed up my schedule and didn’t know I was at work.”
Despite small hassles, Briscoe is grateful for her freedom. The 28-year-old has been in and out of Las Colinas seven times in five years.
Cassie talks about her life after jail.
Before Ashley Maya’s arrest, she’d never received so much as a parking violation. Maya describes herself as responsible, someone who isn’t a big partier, who has never done drugs; she isn’t a big drinker. In Yuma, where she was stationed, she had her own house. Her single mother and five brothers lived with her, to help make ends meet. At 21, she was a den leader to her little brother’s Boy Scout troop.
“I was living like a 40-year-old woman,” she says. “On base, they used to call me Mama Maya. Everyone was surprised over what happened. No one could believe it, because I was a really good Marine.”
The night of the accident, Maya and her best friend, Pedro Conceicao, were celebrating his release from the Corps.
“It was going to be our one last shebang before he left to go back home to Virginia,” Maya recalls.
Pedro and Ashley met in Meridian, Mississippi, while attending aviation-operators’ school. They became instant friends. Later, they were stationed together at the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma. The two were inseparable. According to Maya, if you saw Pedro walking around base, she was with him.
Ashley doesn’t remember every moment of the accident. There are, however, vivid images that have stuck in her mind. For instance, she was barefoot. Her friend Vasty had loaned her a pair of high heels to wear to F6ix, the Gaslamp club, but Maya had kicked them off before driving home. She remembers the explosive noise her car made when it flipped over, and the silence that followed. She recalls Bryan Salcido, the front-seat passenger who escaped the wreck with minor injuries, helping her out of the car. She cannot forget the horrible moment when she realized that backseat passengers Vasty and Pedro had been ejected from the vehicle.
Vasty’s body flew so far that she landed on the 8. Pedro was on the 163. They heard Vasty yell, and Bryan headed in her direction.
Ashley found Pedro nearby.
“I checked his body for external injuries. I’m trained as a combat lifesaver. I was trying to save his life. I held him and waited for the ambulance.”
When the ambulance arrived, Maya wasn’t allowed to ride in the back with Pedro.
At Maya’s trial, prosecutor Jim Waters said, “When police arrived at the scene, [Maya] was cradling the head of the deceased, and at that time, police thought she was seriously injured, because there was so much blood on her blouse. In fact, it was the decedent’s blood.”
Maya was given a Breathalyzer at the scene. She blew into it three times before it could get a reading, because, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, she had a collapsed lung.
“You wanna know something crazy?” Maya asks. “That night, before we went downtown, Vasty took us to her church. We watched a movie [called Courageous] about a man whose daughter was killed by a drunken driver.”
When Maya was admitted to the hospital after the accident, she was told by law enforcement that Pedro didn’t make it.
“They read me my rights. I told them I didn’t want to talk to them, I wanted a lawyer. I knew it was bad. I’m a Marine, and someone died. They had a cop on watch outside my door 24/7. I cried for two days straight. I kept expecting Pedro to walk through the door and say, ‘Ha! I got you.’ But that never happened.”
To this day, when Maya closes her eyes, she sees Pedro as he was that night. “A moment embedded in my mind is Pedro’s face after the accident. Our eyes never left each other’s. It’s locked in my mind. I don’t want to remember him that way. It took me three days to wash his blood out from under my fingernails. A day doesn’t go by where I don’t talk about him, think about him, or dream about him.”
Shortly after Pedro’s death, his family contacted Maya.
“Talking to them was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was brutal. I would have hated me, but they accepted me. They forgave me and said they hoped the courts showed me leniency. They are Christians. They believe Pedro is in a better place. I pray for his family every night. If I feel this way, I can’t imagine what they must be going through. ”
Cassie Briscoe receives a drug test at least once a week. She has been sober since her arrest on August 27, 2012.
“I did drugs because I was hiding from the pain of my past,” Briscoe says.
Her first introduction to drugs was at 14, three years after her family had been brutally attacked by her grandmother’s husband in their West Virginia home.
“He shot my grandmother eight times. My mother was stabbed 27 times. My seven-year-old brother was stabbed twice.”
At the time of the attack, Briscoe was in Kentucky visiting her father.
“It was bizarre the way it ended up, me not being there when the attack happened,” Briscoe says. “That was the first time I ever spent a weekend with my dad. I was blessed.”
Briscoe’s grandmother didn’t survive, but her mom and brother did.
“After that, my mom just gave up. She couldn’t take care of us anymore. My brother went to live with his dad. By then, my dad had committed suicide, so I had nowhere to go.”
Cassie was put into a group home. She ran away.
“I was introduced to drugs by an older couple that I met in an old, abandoned project. The guy was a pimp, and the lady was his lady. Once they got me, they pinned that job on me, so they could get money. That was my first experience with sex and drugs.”
Cassie stayed with the couple for about a year. Eventually, she ran away.
“There is so much of that time period that I don’t remember, and I thank the Lord for that.”
Briscoe had been an addict for half of her life.
“There were times when I went a year or six months [without using], but drugs kept pulling me back. I did them to take the pain away. Any uncomfortable feeling I felt, I said, ‘Okay, I need a drink; I need some drugs.’ I didn’t want to feel my emotions. [They] were too intense.”
Cassie believes her recent recovery has everything to do with faith. She credits her sobriety on her involvement with her church, The Rock.
“I started getting high downtown. Some random drug addict handed me Miles McPherson’s book [Do Something Now] while I was at the Golden West Hotel on 4th Avenue. I’m in this tiny room with some really bad people. There were some beds in there, and barely a sink. I was sitting on the floor, reading the book and crying. I was thinking Miles McPherson used to be a drug addict, and now he’s successful and walking with God. I decided to start going to church again, but I had one foot in, one foot out.”
Shortly after that night, she was arrested.
“Six days after being arrested, I got on my knees and accepted God. I was in bunk 23 at Las Colinas, right by the bathroom. The door kept swinging open, because there were 50 women in there peeing, all night long. They kept screaming at me to shut up, and I was like, ‘Leave me alone, I am accepting Jesus Christ into my heart right now.’ In that moment, things really changed for me, and it’s not just a story. Things really changed.”
Briscoe says that Las Colinas was easy compared to other jails she has been in. The 28-year-old has done time in Miami Dade County Annex System, and was extradited to Jacksonville.
“Las Colinas is more like a boot camp than anything else. There are women in there that put their feet up and treat it like their home. They see a six-month sentence as no big deal.”
Because of good behavior behind bars, Briscoe became a sewing trusty. Her job was to make prison uniforms.
“When I got transferred to the sewing section, I was like, ‘Where am I? Happy Camp!’ They had a Wii over there, and all the girls were dancing. We could drink as much coffee as we wanted. We even had bows on our beds.”
“Some people come [to Los Colinas], and this is like a vacation,” Maya says of the jail she now calls home. “All their friends are here. They see it as a luxury. They even try to get back in here after they are released.”
Maya sleeps in an eight-by-eight room shared with two other women. She is in the lowest security level at Las Colinas. She is also a trusty.
“Before that, I lived in a dorm with a large group of women. There were 30 bunk beds lined up against the wall. I was with 30 roommates all day, every day. It was horrible. I remember one female came up to me and said, ‘What are you here for, meth? I said no, and she said, ‘You don’t do drugs!’ She looked at me like I was the stupidest person in the world.”
Within a week of her incarceration, Maya had witnessed the bloody beating of a fellow inmate in one of the bathrooms. She also became familiar with the withdrawal symptoms of meth and heroin.
“This place should be a rehabilitation center, not a jail,” she says.
Being a trusty has helped Maya’s time pass more quickly. Five days a week, she works in the kitchen as a prep cook, from 2:00–10:00 a.m. When she isn’t working, she sleeps, reads, or works out.
“I pretty much don’t leave my cell. It’s like going out into a sea of sharks. There are people in here that handle problems by beating the shit out of you. It’s weird being surrounded by prisoners, but it’s easy to stay away from them.”
Maya says she was surprised to run across normal people serving time in Las Colinas.
“I think my biggest surprise about this place is that there are some good people in here. I’ll keep in touch with them when I get out.”
Charlene Autolino, is the Rock Church’s prison-ministry leader and chair of Bonnie Dumanis’ Reentry Roundtable, a program that guides convicts back into the community after incarceration.
“There is more shame involved in being a female behind bars,” Autolino says. “When you go to Donovan on visitation, there’s a line out the door for the men getting visits from their mothers, girlfriends, or wives. Over at Las Colinas, there are no lines for those women. I bet only about five percent still see their children.”
Her observation rings true when I see Ashley Maya. During each of our three visits, there were never more than seven out of the 19 windows being used by guests.
Autolino believes the biggest challenge female prisoners face is readjusting to life outside.
“People need to be less apt to judge. We’ve all made mistakes. We need to help these women reestablish [themselves] and get back into society. If we don’t give them the opportunity to succeed, we’re part of the problem.”
One way Charlene feels communities can help convicts reestablish themselves is by banning “the box,” the section on a job application that asks if you have committed a felony.
“If you check that box, Human Resources will throw your application away without even looking at it. They don’t know that person. Yes, they’ve committed a crime, but what if they’ve been an active part of society for five years? Should they work minimum wage forever? They’ve already served their time. Why do they need to serve it on the outside, too?”
When Ashley Maya learned what her sentence was, she was at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
“I was already disgruntled when my lawyer called. I was applying for a new driver’s license, because my other one had been taken into evidence. There’s a box on the [DMV] form that asks, ‘Have you been convicted of a felony?’ I thought, ‘Great! Now I’m going to have to check that box.’”
Over the phone, her lawyer told her that she would serve a year in jail, followed by five years probation.
“Up until that point, I was in denial that I would do jail time. I didn’t fill in the box that day, because I hadn’t been formally convicted yet.”
When Maya is released in August, 2013, she will have two felonies on her record. She admits that her future doesn’t seem bright. She’s unsure what she will do when she gets out. She has a degree in psychology, and is considering a career in personal training,
“The thing is,” she says, “people will take one look at the box I have to check and pass [on me] immediately. The worst part is right above that box. It asks, ‘Have you served in the military?’ I’ll check both.”
Maya can pay for her DUI to be expunged after seven years, but the vehicular manslaughter will remain on her record.
Maya is a fourth-generation Marine, so the sting of being dishonorably discharged for her accident weighs heavily on her. Her five little brothers have aspirations of serving their country.
“They look up to me. I’m their role model. It’s hard to be a role model from behind bars.”
Maya admits that only her 18-year-old brother knows about her incarceration. The other four have no idea.
“I’ll tell them when they’re older. I want to be an example to them of what not to do. No one can punish me worse than I already punish myself. I try really hard not to think about the shame I brought on the Marine Corps.”
Maya continues, “You would never understand what it’s like to go from serving your country to serving time — to be treated like a hero, and then like a criminal.”
When Cassie Briscoe attempted to find work after being placed on house arrest, she realized she would have to confess her felony. She was certain it would hinder her chances, but Briscoe was fortunate enough to be rehired at a previous job.
“Filling in that little box brought out a lot of emotions in me. I was worried about being rejected. I’m constantly rejected. I realize I’ve created this, but I’m trying to move on. When I fill in that box, all employers see is a person that was in prison.”
Briscoe believes that many people fail when they get out prison due to overwhelming expectations.
“When you get out, [the courts] want you to do this and that, and get a job. How can you get a job with a felony? A felony changes everything. I see these men and women get out of prison, and they fall. I try to look at [my crime] as my past, but it’s hard to put it behind me.”
Briscoe’s recent arrest left her with $10,000 in court fees. On top of that, she had to pay an addition $1000 for her house arrest.
“I don’t know how I’ll afford it. I’m trying to get back on my feet, and I can barely make it. Every time I go to court, it’s 300 more dollars. The treasurer’s department keeps sending me bills.”
Briscoe compares her court fees to a student loan, only without the benefit of obtaining a degree.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do next. When most people were going to high school and college, I was doing drugs and working in the adult-entertainment business. I’m still figuring it out.”
Cassie volunteers at Metro United Methodist Urban Ministry with girls who are getting in trouble with the law.
“I want to be able to help those kids. I just started going in there and sharing my story. I tell those girls, ‘This is where I am now. The events of my past don’t define me.’ I want to make a difference in their lives.”
Ashley Maya’s release date is August 3.
“The first thing I want to do when I get out of here is go to a spa and wash the jail off of me, but first I’ll have to check into probation.”
She is looking forward to having a real pillow, a real toothbrush, mouthwash, and a comfortable mattress again.
Since she missed Pedro’s funeral due to her incarceration, Maya wants to take a visit to Virginia to visit his grave. She will have to get special permission from her probation officer to travel.
Maya is unsure what her future holds.
“I have the strong feeling that I am supposed to do something with what happened to me. I believe everything happens for a reason. I might not know why now, but, eventually, I’ll look back and realize why. At some point I’ll say, ‘Okay, Lord, that’s why that happened.’”